1. Opinion

Database funding key to fighting prescription drug abuse

Published Nov. 20, 2012

The proliferation and abuse of prescription pills throughout the state and particularly in the Tampa Bay area is our greatest law enforcement crisis, affecting not only repeat criminals but also otherwise law-abiding citizens struggling with addiction. For those of us in law enforcement, stopping the spread of pills must be our foremost objective.

Our most powerful weapon is the recently created prescription database monitoring program, which tracks people abusing and selling prescription narcotics. But a funding shortage is looming, and Florida lawmakers must act to maintain and strengthen this vital program.

What sets the effort against pill abuse apart from our nation's war on drugs is that we are combating abuse of widely distributed legal narcotics. We know that drug abuse leads to other criminal acts such as theft and sometimes violence. With that in mind, we must equip law enforcement with the tools to free our community from the grips of pill abuse.

The first step is to provide adequate treatment to help nonviolent addicts get off the pills. In the Sixth Circuit we have created Drugs Courts, which set out to do just that. Drug Court brings treatment centers, counselors and the justice system together in one room with one goal: get the person off the pills. Of individuals who graduate from Drug Court programs, more than 75 percent are not arrested again after two years.

The second objective is to use intelligence-led policing models to combat future illegal distribution of prescription pills. In 1969, my dad walked a beat in the south Bronx. When he walked that beat, nightstick in hand, he was waiting for crime.

You could argue that the presence of law enforcement prevents crime, but historically we have been trained to react to crime, not prevent it. That has all changed. Now we try to anticipate crime by gathering intelligence on the street and pooling it in databases to glean information on our community's criminal element. This is a successful method of combating street crime.

However, when it comes to pills there is one major gap that policing cannot provide. How do we know when people are using their legal prescriptions for an illegal purpose? How do we know if they are getting multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors? In 2010 the Legislature gave us the best weapon yet to fight this problem: the prescription drug monitoring program.

Pharmacies input data when a patient fills a prescription for a controlled substance, such as Oxycodone. This allows other pharmacists to see if patients are doctor shopping or worse, filling high volumes of narcotics, which is an indication they may be sellers. This alone does not create probable cause that someone has committed a crime. But it does alert officers that they should investigate. Patient advisory reports obtained from the database help stop criminals who are filling prescriptions in multiple counties with the idea of turning a profit. Law enforcement officers do not have unfettered access to the database, nor should they, but they can use it to look for information in the course of an active investigation.

The Florida Department of Health reports that in 2009, before the database existed, the average number of monthly deaths involving controlled substances was 147. In 2011, that number was cut by 19 percent.

The program is proving its effectiveness, but come January it will run out of money. As a prosecutor who sees the scourge of pills on our community every day, my message to lawmakers is this: maintaining this program is worth the cost. Lawmakers should fund the database and make the dollars recurring. Let's make it clear how high a priority this is. And politicians can rest easy in this decision. Taxpayers will save money in the long run as we deter criminals, and use less bed space in jails, not to mention save lives.

Legislators also should give the program more teeth. Right now it's optional for doctors to check the database before prescribing controlled substances, and news reports indicate that many doctors are not bothering. If the doctors, like the pharmacies, were required to use the database, we would catch the issue before a doctor ever has to put pen to paper. This is an extra burden on doctors, but it is also sound public policy.

The drug database alone will not resolve our struggle against pills. We will need community groups to continue to step up to provide education and prevention services. But for our Legislature in the upcoming session, it's a start.

Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor is an assistant state attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit.